Last week, Eventline looked at the dramatic rise in guest demands for meals to accommodate special diets. Today, event planner Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, who suffers from food allergies herself, offers suggestions to help caterers cope with these challenges.

Stuckrath founded Atlanta-based Thrive! Meetings and Events in 2010 based on her own experience to educate the hospitality industry on how to accommodate guests' dietary needs at events and, she says, "help make the world healthier, one event at a time."

SPECIAL EVENTS: The biggest headache for caterers about special diet requests is getting no notice beforehand, and then being expected to create custom dishes on the fly when they don’t have unlimited resources on-site. What would you suggest?

STUCKRATH: It is definitely a difficult and sticky situation to handle, making it extremely important to ask the questions at the very first meeting and reiterating throughout the planning process.

Meeting the dietary needs of guests is the responsibility of not just the catering chef but everyone involved in making sure the details are handled. From the guest and meeting planner to the catering sales manager and entire culinary team, banquet captains and servers, everyone needs to be a part of the conversation. Communication is key, and it begins when creating invitations and registration sites and selecting a caterer.

Some ideas on how to better manage the needs:

  • Determine, understand and communicate to all staff and your clients the level of service you are willing and capable of providing and then follow through with it.
  • When catering sales managers meet with clients for the first time, ask if there are any special dietary needs while explaining the importance of knowing the needs in advance.
  • As a caterer, your job is to help clients create a wonderful, delicious experience for everyone, but some of the needs require pre-planning and advance notice. Let your client know it's important for them as the host to find out the needs and communicate the needs to you as soon as possible so you can make it happen.
  • Give clients deadlines for when the special requests need to be ordered so you can properly prepare. Make sure they are in your contracts. If a need comes in after the deadline, let them know you will do your best to accommodate the request, but can’t promise the same quality of meal.
  • Plan the menu with the special needs in mind. Wouldn’t it make it easier to have all guests enjoy the same meal? If it looks good and tastes fantastic, no one would know it was missing this ingredient or that one. But, be sure you must communicate what you’re doing to the specific guests so they know they can have it.
  • Train your staff to know the menu items and the ingredients in them. One of the most disappointing points of customer service is when a server doesn’t know what they are serving.
  • Create several versions of the meal and have them ready and available. You go that extra mile to create the "wow" factor for your standard menu items. Why not do the same with the special meals and have them in your back pocket--or front pocket, for that matter?
  • If not a certified gluten- or allergen-free catering kitchen, work with your legal experts to create a liability statement that says you take the utmost precautions, but can’t guarantee it.

SE: Caterers also seem to make a distinction between food allergies/sensitivities, which could make a guest ill, and preferences that perhaps reflect a philosophy or—at worst—a fad.

TS: The distinction between a food allergy, an intolerance, and preference or fad is definitely hard to determine, but the best philosophy is to treat them as if they are all allergies.

Again, work with planners on how to ask the question in registration forms. Using just drop-down boxes limits the questions you can ask without going crazy, and open-ended questions leave a lot of room for interpretation. Using a combination might work well, especially on registration sites. Do you have a special dietary need we need to accommodate? Have them select from a drop-down that allows them to select and comment.

Although the food-allergic and gluten-free community is growing fast, those with the needs are still apprehensive about making the requests because they don’t want to be a burden, they're embarrassed or they don’t trust our capabilities. Learning how to accommodate their needs properly, with respect and safely, can add a tremendous amount to the bottom line.

As stated in Part 1 of this series, the number of requests is growing rapidly. Unfortunately or fortunately, it’s going to continue to grow.

The prevalence and diagnosis of people with food allergies—as many as 15 million Americans have a food allergy and according to the Centers for Disease Control , the number of children with them increased by 18 percent from 1997 to 2007. One in every 133 persons has celiac disease; yet 90 percent have not yet been diagnosed. Then there are the millions of Americans with diabetes, obesity and other diseases, which can be and are managed by diet.

The global market for food allergy and Intolerance products is projected to surpass $26.5 billion by 2017. Why not learn how to meet the needs of your various guests, helping them enjoy the events and your meals and adding to your bottom line.

Adding to the mix is the fact that eating was added to the list of major life activities included in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 2008, along with a list of bodily functions, including the immune system and digestive tract. How does that affect catering companies? It means food allergies, celiac disease and diabetes, to name a few food-related diseases, are now considered disabilities and can be covered by the ADA. So as we need accommodate the hearing and visually-impaired at events, we must now accommodate those with food allergies.

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